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Johann Hermann Schein (1586 - 1630): Israelsbrünnlein

Dir: Manfred Cordes
rec: Jan 8 - 13, 2003, Bremen, Radio Bremen (Studio)
CPO - 999 959-2 (1.41'20")

Ach Herr, ach meiner schone; Da Jakob vollendet hatte; Dennoch bleibe ich stets an dir; Der Herr denket an uns; Die mit Tränen säen; Drei schöne Dinge sind; Freue dich des Weibes deiner Jugend; Herr, laß meine Klage; Ich bin die Wurzel des Geschlechtes David; Ich bin jung gewesen; Ich freue mich im Herren; Ich lasse dich nicht; Ihr Heiligen, lobsinget dem Herrn; Ist nicht Ephraim mein teurer Sohn; Lehre uns bedenken; Lieblich und schöne sein ist nichts; Nu danket alle Gott; O Herr, ich bin dein Knecht; O, Herr Jesu Christe; Siehe an die Werk Gottes; Siehe, nach Trost war mir sehr bange; Unser Leben währet siebnzig Jahr; Was betrübst du dich, meine Seele; Wem ein tugendsam Weib bescheret ist; Wende dich, Herr; Zion spricht: der Herr hat mich verlassen; Wer unter dem Schirm des Höchsten sitzeta (from Cymbalum Sionium, 1615)

Susanne Rydén, Constanze Backes, soprano; Marnix De Cat, alto; Hansjörg Mammel, Knut Schoch, tenor; Harry van der Kamp, bass; Thomas Ihlenfeldt, chitarrone; Manfred Cordes, organa

Johann Hermann Schein was one of the most famous predecessors of Johann Sebastian Bach as Thomaskantor in Leipzig. Like Bach he was very much interested in and influenced by the Italian music of his time, although neither of them has ever been in Italy. And the similarity goes even further: both aimed at combining the contemporary Italian style with traditional polyphony.

The Israelsbrünnlein which was published in 1623 is a perfect example of this mixture of 'modern' and 'traditional'. In the preface Schein specifically refers to the Italian style, in particular the madrigal, as he writes that these pieces are written in the "Italian madrigalian manner". A number of pieces in this collection apparently were composed at an earlier date, probably commissioned by the authorities or by private persons in Leipzig, at the occasion of weddings, funerals and political events.
The texts are - with two exceptions - from the Bible, in particular the Old Testament, including the Apocrypha. The two exceptions are Ach Herr, ach meiner schone and O, Herr Jesu Christe, whose texts are probably written by Schein himself. All pieces are set for five voices - only the concluding madrigal is in 6 parts - with a basso continuo ad libitum. This basso continuo part has the character of a basso seguente, following the vocal bass part, like in the early madrigal books of Monteverdi or in Ludovico da Viadana's collection Cento concerti ecclesiastici, which was published in Frankfurt in 1619, and which was probably the first source through which Schein got acquainted with the Italian concertato style.

The main feature of these sacred madrigals is the expression of the text. Die mit Tränen säen - which is a setting of verses 5 and 6 of Psalm 126 - starts with chromaticism on the first half of verse 5: "They that sow in tears", but then only the diatonic scale is used in the second half: "shall reap in joy", where the tempo is also speeded up. A couple of times a shift in metre takes place. Polyphonic and homophonic passages alternate, as well as phrases for reduced voices with tutti passages. In other pieces the scoring is specifically used to illustrate elements in the text, for example in Siehe, nach Trost war mir sehr bange (Isaiah 38, 17-19a), where the phrase "For the grave cannot praise thee, death can not celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth" is set for alto, tenor and bass (with the dynamic indication piano), whereas the next phrase: "The living, the living, he shall praise thee" is set for the whole ensemble. The piece ends with a glorious and forceful "as I do this day".
Schein also uses so-called madrigalisms, musical figures applied in the Italian madrigals of his time. In Was betrübst du dich, meine Seele the disquiet of the soul ("Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me?", Psalm 42, vs 11) is vividly illustrated by a series of quavers. Musical figures picture the arrow in Ach Herr, ach meiner schone ("For your arrows cause me great torment").

As far as the performance practice is concerned, the fact that this collection was dedicated to the mayors and city council of Leipzig suggests - as do the use of the term madrigal and the choice of some texts - these pieces were not meant to be sung within a liturgical setting, but rather at special occasions. That leaves it to the interpreter to decide how to perform this repertoire, with one voice per part or with a 'choir'. It seems to me that the character of the pieces as well as the label madrigal strongly support the first option, which is chosen here. Schein suggests the possibility to use instruments as well, and considering the relationship between text and music they could only be used to play colla parte with the voices rather than to replace one or more of them. I am not aware of any recording of these compositions in which instruments are used this way.

The ensemble Weser-Renaissance is very much at home in German music of the 17th century, as their many recordings impressively demonstrate. One should therefore expect a convincing and stylish recording, and that is exactly what is delivered here. The performers put the text into the centre, and are not afraid to take freedom where the text gives reason to do so. One example is the closing phrase of Unser Leben währet siebnzig Jahr (Psalm 90, vs 10) with the text "als flögen wir davon" ("and we fly away"). The last syllable - "von" - takes the whole last bar, but is cut short here, which is fully justified by the meaning of the text.
One of the madrigals whose text has probably been written by Schein himself, O, Herr Jesu Christe, seems very personal and shows great intensity. It a prayer to God to "remain with your word in this place" and refers to the Holy Communion: "Keep thy holy sacrament in this place, otherwise we stray like the sheep. O do pasture us, you good shepherd." It is performed here with a kind of exaltation one hardly expects in a composition by a Protestant German composer of the 17th century.

One could perhaps criticise the fact that it isn't always easy to tell the two upper voices apart, and the top notes sometimes sound a little stressed. But these are very minor remarks on an outstanding and most impressive and enjoyable recording of a collection of music, which is rightly considered a monument in the history of German music.

Johan van Veen (© 2006)

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